Care for a Pacific Island holiday with sun drenched beaches, towering palms, crystal oceans and brilliant reefs? Scientists tell us that within a generation or two global warming may well bring an end to such adventures. And it’s not just your holiday that is under threat. Pacific island states depend on their coastlines for tourist income, fishing income, living space and the majority of their business. These are all threatened by global climate change.
In recent years we’ve heard a lot about global warming, climate change and the Kyoto Protocol. But have you realized that while the world’s rich nations are doing the most to cause climate change, it is the world’s poor who will be most affected?
God has given us a wisely designed planet. Part of this design is a very effective temperature control system. The sun generates heat, some of which is absorbed by the earth, some reflected back into space and some captured by “greenhouse gases.” These gases include water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. They sit in the atmosphere and act like a blanket, ensuring the earth stays warm enough to sustain life.
In the last 200 years human activity has increased the concentration of these gases in the atmosphere. The industrial and technological revolutions brought us tools such as electricity and motor vehicles. Unfortunately, these technologies also produce greenhouse gases and at such a scale that there has been an unprecedented increase in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This means more heat is trapped and the earth’s temperature is raised.
Global average surface temperatures have risen by 0.7 degrees Celsius in the last century. This might not seem like much, but small changes in average temperatures can mean big changes in events such as heat waves. Modest changes in temperature will also mean rising sea levels, big shifts in rainfall patterns and more severe storms, floods and cyclones. These changes can in turn affect plants and animals–many of which will be unable to survive or grow where they are now–and the spread of diseases such as malaria and dengue fever.
For example, between 1950 and 2004, 157 severe windstorms hit the Pacific island states. These affected 2.5 million people and caused over $6 billion in damage. As global temperatures rise extreme weather events such as these will increase in number and intensity, inflicting more damage on already poor Pacific island states.
Similarly, increasing global temperatures will lead to rising sea levels. The extent of these rises will depend upon the degree of warming, but even small increases may see low lying countries such as Bangladesh and small island states lose tens of thousands of square kilometres of land and experience increased flooding. The situation will be made worse by the bleaching of coral reefs and loss of mangrove stands that play a critical role in protecting coastlines.
Diseases such as malaria and dengue fever will also become more prevalent under global warming. Every year these diseases claim millions of lives and render millions of the world’s poor unable to work or study. Given malaria and dengue fever thrive in warmer climates, a warmer earth will see them infecting more of the world’s poor.
As these few examples demonstrate, climate change will take its greatest toll on the world’s poor. The reasons for this are twofold. First, the world’s poor frequently live in areas and engage in industries that are most significantly impacted by climate change. For example, the bulk of the world’s poor are involved in agriculture, and agriculture is very sensitive to variations in climate. Although a modest rise in temperatures could improve agriculture in some parts of the world, it is predicted that in those parts of the world where the poorest live heat shock and lower rainfall will damage agriculture.
Second, poor countries have little capacity to adapt to climate change. Wealthy nations can protect themselves from an increase in extreme weather events by building stronger homes and can afford the measures necessary to protect their coastlines from increased sea levels. Sadly, adaptive strategies such as these are beyond the financial and institutional reach of the world’s poor.
The consensus of the world’s scientific community is that human induced climate change is occurring. The process has already begun and the adverse impacts are already being seen. For example, the World Health Organisation estimates that climate change is already causing 150,000 deaths and 5 million additional cases of severe illness each year.
The questions that remain to be answered are:
How great will the rise in temperature be?
The answer to this question will be determined by the degree to which we modify our behavior. Global average temperatures will probably rise by another 0.6 degrees Celsius even if we stop emitting greenhouse gases today, because the gases already in the atmosphere have not yet had their full effect. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggests that even if the world halves greenhouse gas emissions by the end of this century global temperatures will still rise by 1.5-2.9 degrees. “Business as usual” will see increases of up to 5.8 degrees.
How severe will the impacts be?
The higher the temperature increase the wider and deeper the impact. At higher levels of increase the impacts will be massive and potentially catastrophic for the entire planet. At lower temperature levels developed nations such as Australia will probably be able to adapt reasonably well. Poor nations will not. They will suffer even with increases of 1-2 degrees.
What will we do?
As those entrusted with stewardship of the earth and its resources, humankind must assume responsibility for addressing the causes and consequences of climate change. The world’s developed nations must take the lead in this, for it is we who have done the most to create the problem and we who have the resources to help the poor adapt. We must address the causes of climate changing by reducing our own greenhouse gas emissions. We must also help poor nations to adapt. We can do this both by helping them tackle the root causes of poverty and by providing aid that specifically builds their capacity to deal with climate change.
Scott Higgins is development education and advocacy officer at Baptist World Aid Australia